International Service-Learning Adventures

This Guest post is authored by Montana Campus Compact Executive Director Andrea Vernon, reflecting on her experience as a participant in a U.S. State Department professional exchange program.

For the next few weeks, I have the privilege of traveling through Thailand and Laos as a participant in a U.S. State Department professional exchange program with the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. My exchange host is Amm Malanon, Director of Thailand’s national volunteer center called Volunteer Spirit Network. She and her team are doing amazing work supporting Thailand’s NGO sector to engage volunteers in a wide variety of needs throughout the country. She also works closely with more than 19 universities in Thailand helping them to develop volunteer centers, service learning courses and civic engagement opportunities. Amm founded the first university volunteer center in Thailand when she was an undergraduate student several years ago at Thammasat University in Bangkok. She is an amazing professional and I am learning a lot from her and her colleagues.

Yesterday I participated in a conference at Thammasat called “University Promoting Service Learning and Civic Engagement”. I presented a workshop on service learning and civic engagement in the U.S. and was able to share our Campus Compact model and discuss our specific programs and services. It was exciting to be able to share the work we do, but even more exciting for me to then learn about the ways in which the higher education system of Thailand is building civic engagement programming. More than 65 administrators, faculty and students attended the conference and talked about a wide variety of volunteer programs and service learning classes. For example, law school students are serving as advocates for people affected by flooding to access to government disaster relief funding, negotiating between homeowners and a water utility company that is trying to force customers to pay for a water line breakage by increasing their bills by 1000%, and building workplace safety policies. Dentistry students are working with low-income school children to increase dental hygiene by creating programs that help reduce the sugar content of school lunches, implementing teeth brushing stations within the school, and providing free dental procedures. Art students are serving at a children’s hospital providing fun activities that help kids take a break from their illness and improve their outlook for the day. Biology students are working in indigenous areas to protect rivers from pollution. And the list goes on…This work started sounding very familiar to me as I listened and learned throughout the day. Many of the campuses shared stories of challenges in this work that are strikingly similar to ours in the U.S. too. The difficulty of supporting and implementing programs that align with both student affairs and academic affairs, challenges finding enough resources and building an infrastructure within the campus to do this work, identifying ways to effectively engaging with community partners and difficulties working with students who can sometimes be flakey and irresponsible with follow-through.

Civic engagement programs have started at the universities within the last three to seven years. They are quickly finding value in coming together for these types of conferences hosted by Volunteer Spirit Network to learn together, share their experiences and challenge themselves to build and grow programs. The driving force behind this work is to create a culture and society that will be able to sustain democracy. Engaging young people now in their communities and equipping them with the skills necessary to become civic leaders is an urgent need in the country that the higher education system is working hard to address. It seems to me they are on the right track. I’ll be working with several other campuses during my stay in southeast Asia and look forward to continuing to learn more about this quickly expanding work in the region.

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